In the summer of 2008, a fascinating exhibition about the representation of black people by Dutch and Flemish artists, from late medieval to modern times, was held at the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. The title Black is Beautiful included a postmodern nod at the biblical Nigra sum sed formosa, the words of the Black Bride of the Song of Songs. Although English may be today’s Latin, the reference seems to have been largely missed, which is perhaps one reason why the exhibition was not given a warm welcome by the Dutch press. From a cultural and socio-historical point of view, the subject is heavily mortgaged, as was confirmed by the reaction from certain quarters. Esther Schreuder, the curator of the exhibition, was criticized by the media for everything other than her art-historical expertise. However, for the open-minded visitor this exhibition surely made its point clearly enough. Eric Rinckhout of De Morgen was one of the few Netherlandish correspondents to take an unprejudiced view of the results of this profound study of the visual evidence of the representation of blacks.
Though one might object to the (necessary) limitation of scope that Esther Schreuder and her team imposed upon themselves, their approach displayed some audacity: most of the works featured were by great artists; the stereotypes and caricatures that are so often found in the applied arts were omitted, primarily because discussion so often focuses on these. Despite the exhibition’s temporal and geographical limitations – from the later Middle Ages to the present day; works only from the Netherlands, and excluding the South after independent Belgium was established – , the exhibition gave a very good picture of the story of the image of the black in European art. It is not of course a straightforward matter to recover the original meaning and reception of this highly charged imagery – perceived so differently by viewers of today. This was illustrated at the close of the exhibition where the public could play a sort of game, designed to be instructive as well as entertaining, to test what they had learned from the show – I discovered, to my surprise, how one’s vision is colored by one’s predispositions. In the foreword to the catalogue the aim of the exhibition was outlined as follows: “The attraction exerted by black people on Dutch artists over seven centuries. – Artists who chose to give a role to a black person in their work did so deliberately. – Attraction implies curiosity, admiration and perhaps even affection. – This positive attitude of artists (or patrons) toward black people has been the point of departure for this exhibition and the determining factor when selecting works.”
Even though a somewhat different approach could have been applied in the second part of the exhibition, I have to admit that overall it succeeded very well in achieving this aim. It was an engaging show to visit, with a dynamic display of the works of art. As the subtitle indicates, emphasis was placed on seventeenth-century imagery, with Rubens and his circle playing a leading role. Rubens always depicted black figures as lively and spontaneous, never portraying them in the stereotypical fashion with exaggerated features so often found on early engravings. Among other images in this spirit from the seventeenth century are Jan van den Hoecke’s Sybil and Jacob Jordaens’s Moses and His Ethiopian Wife. Looking back at this period with the knowledge of subsequent history, it is of course often difficult to understand that things were not ‘as black’ in the seventeenth century as they later became. Nevertheless, the exhibition did not shy away from addressing more problematic imagery, as is evident, for example, in the examination of the topics of the black servant, or again the illustration of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. At the end of the exhibition, the contemporary artist Iris Kensmil was given a voice with her installations of predecessors in the fight for black emancipation.
I have, however, a certain criticism to make vis-à-vis the boundaries set on the exhibition. It has long been a sore point that the Dutch tend to treat the nineteenth century without looking at events in neo-Belgium – as if the Nachleben of our joint cultural heritage could be ignored on or after the installation of that virtual border of 1830. It is understandable that in the context of the exhibition the subject had to be kept within manageable limits, but I would hope that the similarities and differences in treatment of the imagery of black people in nineteenth-century Holland and Belgium could be tackled in the future in some joint research project. It seems that while the Southern Netherlands are appreciated well enough when it is a matter of Rubens and his contemporaries, the later colonial history of this area is easily ignored. Yet this has a bearing on the whole theme. To take a single example, one of the works in the Antwerp City Hall is a painting of 1899 showing The Liberation of a Slave by Juliaan de Vriendt. This depicts an event that occurred in the sixteenth century but, significantly, was painted in a period when expansion into the Congo was at its height, and slavery and repression were rampant. It is surely important to complement the research on the reception of the imagery of blacks in the Northern Netherlands by investigating pictures such as de Vriendt’s.
The catalogue which accompanied the exhibition, edited jointly by Esther Schreuder and Elmer Kolfin, will remain a useful tool for future study of black people in art. Well-informed essays fill the often glaring lacunae in the research of the past. Among the interesting contributions, Elizabeth McGrath, who had already written about the black source of the Nile in Rubens’s Four Rivers (previously known as The Four Continents), shows persuasively in her study of the iconography of Rubens’s Venus of the Night (also known as The Toilet of Venus, Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna) that the painting is certainly not as “black and white” as was hitherto assumed. Needless to say, the essay “The Black Magus in the Netherlands from Memling to Rubens” by Jean Michel Massing is a thorough and useful overview. Another essay that particularly appealed to me is Jacqueline de Raad’s study of Tonia Stieltjes, Jan Sluijters’s black model. De Raad’s emphasis on the social background of Stieltjes’s life makes her come alive in a marvellous way. Sluijters was a leading figure when it came to painting black people in the first half of the twentieth century, as was splendidly demonstrated through the well-chosen examples. Rubens’s Study of a Black African Man with a Turban, which, despite the argument made by Joost Vander Auwera in the catalogue, was surely painted in Italy, was a brilliant choice for the cover of the catalogue, which is distinguished by its handy format and numerous high quality color reproductions. The layout, however, proved to be somewhat impractical with many subdivisions in the catalogue section and images not placed next to the corresponding entries. An index of names and places would have been a welcome addition. Still, apart from the catalogue, the other lasting testimony is the wonderful film, directed by Tessa Boerman, that was made to coincide with the exhibition.
The curator was ‘accused’ by some of putting on a good-news-show; but in my view what the exhibition conveyed was rather the results of intensive historical research into the production of artists over the ages, which turned out to present a much more positive image than might have been expected. The exhibition thus largely justified its daring title, with its historical/biblical reference, proving to be an indispensable antidote to postmodern neo-interpretation which can be blinded by excessive attention to political correctness.
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen